B.B. King

Thoughts On B. B. King by Jonny Meister

• • B. B. King turned 87 years old this past September 16th • •

What’s in a name? The name “King” has always had some cachet, given its meaning. It’s a good choice for a stage name, as a teenaged girl named Carol Klein discovered when she renamed herself Carole King. Yet the name “King” seems almost cruelly ironic for a black kid born in Mississippi in the third decade of the 20th century with no apparent hopes of even a fair chance in society, let alone a sort of royal status.

Riley B. King, born September 16, 1926, near Indianola, Mississippi would surmount the odds and become a true king, the King of the Blues, an international star in a genre where the players are particularly known for – - almost a built-in expectation – - being poor and undervalued. Other blues “kings” almost certainly picked the name because of B. B. and did little to discourage constant speculation that they were his brothers. But Albert King (Albert Nelson) and Freddie King (Freddie Christian) were not related to B. B. More recently, musician-actor Chris Thomas seemed to enhance his career when he concatenated his name with “King.”

Part of B. B. King’s success strategy, much like that of other blacks who navigated the treacherous waters of upward mobility, was the use of keen observation, precise control of behavior and choice of words in every daily situation and interaction, much like a diplomat in a serious international crisis. I remember Johnny Copeland telling me about it, that gossamer fine line one walked every minute of every day to maintain dignity while avoiding what could be a catastrophic confrontation. As a boy, Riley King had seen the body of a young lynched black man near a courthouse. Every black kid knew what could easily happen if an encounter took the wrong turn.

The picture of the person revealed in David McGee’s biography “There Is Always One More Time,” published to coincide with King’s 80th birthday in 2006, as well as from King’s own autobiography and other books, articles, interviews, and such, is complex, sometimes contradictory, and frustratingly incomplete. That lifelong survival-based inscrutability is still intact.

King’s parents separated when he was very young. He was raised by his mother, but she died when he was just ten. For a while, the boy continued to live on his own in a shack and work on the plantation they lived on. The picture that emerges is of someone who had very little real childhood, working hard from a very early age to earn his way. Indeed King’s incredible capacity for work is one of the key reasons for his success. King’s father eventually came for him, but young Riley didn’t feel that he fit in well with his father’s new family, and closeness with his dad would take some years to develop.

That seems to be another King trait: he makes changes slowly and carefully. (Years later when the blues audience seemed to be switching from black to white, King said he wasn’t seeking the white audience in particular and viewed his primary audience as black, though he does talk about being stunned by the changes when the “flower power” set appeared. Once he was given a totally nude woman escort to bring him to the stage where he was to perform. Can’t blame him for wondering what the hell was going on!) King left his father’s home to go back to the plantation when he was just a teenager, a bike ride that took several days. He essentially ran his own life thereafter.

King went to Memphis and connected with his mother’s cousin Booker T. Washington White, a bluesman known as Bukka White (pronounced “Book-ah”), who not only helped him with music but also with learning how to be a professional in entertainment. King became a dee-jay on WDIA in Memphis, spinning records but also writing and singing his own jingles. He also started getting club gigs to perform his music, and still sometimes went across the river into Mississippi for an afternoon or a day to pick cotton for more income. Known as “The Beale Street Blues Boy,” his nickname was later shortened to “Blues Boy” and “Bee Bee” and finally “B. B.”

King’s first record “Miss Martha King” was ostensibly about his first wife, though in interviews King has always praised her, while in the song she is cheating on him. In actuality, he was the one with a lover on the side, and that woman got pregnant and had a child by King. McGee writes that King has had 15 kids, each with a different woman, and none with either of the two women who were actually married to him. After he and his second wife split, he resolved not to marry again, a wise decision.

King never fought claims of paternity and has surely spent more on child support and college tuition than most people come close to earning! I wonder what effect earlier reporting of this might have had on his career in those much-less liberated years, when a single extra-marital affair could torpedo a career, and reporters actually held back sometimes on what they reported if they liked someone. King has rarely if ever been the featured subject in a tabloid; he seems amazingly good at controlling the flow of information. (This year he has been sued by producers of a film called “B. B. King And I” for allegedly interfering with the making of the film, which is said to be about King’s relationship with screen writer Michael Zanetis – - stay tuned.)

In his autobiography, King tells of his first sexual experiences when he was about 6 with a slightly older girl, who was nevertheless still at a single-digit age. She had observed her parents in the sex act and wanted to replicate what she saw with young Riley. Once again, there is a sense of very little real childhood here. King was in adult situations when he was a kid. Answering questions about his large number of kids, King will say something like, “I like the ladies.” But does he?

A number of King’s famous songs seem truly mean-spirited and misogynistic. I remember those songs from the 60s and 70s, and definitely did not like King at the time. In “Paying The Cost To Be The Boss,” he says that because he is supporting his woman, she should accept everything on his terms; and then there is “Don’t Answer The Door,” in which he bars his wife from having any visitors including her mom or sister, and in which he tells her if she is sick not to let the doctor come over and just “suffer till I get home.” Years after hearing that for the first time I saw him at Robin Hood Dell, and a bunch of middle-aged black women were laughing and clapping when he sang that line. Clearly they related life experiences to it. I started to think that perhaps it was a case of a character in a song not being the same as the singer or writer. I hoped so! That song still makes me cringe, all the more so because he sings it with such conviction.

King’s autobiography doesn’t totally dodge this stuff, and does offer a few details about his sex life, and even tells why he was circumcised in middle age, but what’s missing is the story of the relationships. How do these women feel? Were they angry and hurt? What about all those kids, who had their bills paid but couldn’t have known their dad well, as he traveled the globe playing hundreds of shows per year? Does he feel a loss on that account too? The real feelings and experiences of all of these people, and how they maintain relationships now, is largely unknown.

King’s financial contributions and benefit shows for prisoners and for civil rights activities, including some started by Medgar Evers, the NAACP Field Secretary murdered in 1963, were not publicized in a way to call attention to him. Evers, in a high-profile position in Mississippi, knew that he was target. King chose a less visible role (and much safer!), though for some, the lack of songs about the movement was a disappointment, especially when James Brown was singing “I’m Black And I’m Proud” at the end of the 60s decade. King’s only real overt political song was “Why I Sing The Blues” in which he referred to slavery and the restricted status of blacks in America in modern times.

It was “The Thrill Is Gone,” in 1969, a song about love diminishing, that finally lifted him into stardom and across the musical racial divide that Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf had crossed earlier – - more than a decade and a half after his first R&B chart hit, “Three O’Clock Blues” had been recorded for Modern Records at the YMCA in Memphis, because the label’s owners had lost access to Sam Phillips’ famed Sun studios following a dispute with Phillips. Now, King had real studios and great producers, including Bill Szymczyk who produced “The Thrill Is Gone” and Stewart Levine.

King, a confident and powerful presence on stage, was much less sure of himself in recording situations. Levine produced him when King was certainly a veteran – - but McGee writes that Levine found King feeling sufficiently insecure on the album “There Must Be A Better World Somewhere” that he gave him actual “guide vocals” in his headphones to sing along with while he recorded the songs. King at first was a little intimidated by Dr. John’s guide vocals, even though King certainly is the better singer of the two. Previous use of guide vocals had used singing from people such as Will Jennings, who wrote great songs but was no threat as a singer, and they had helped King. On this album, King had to overcome his regard for Dr. John’s singing to sing the songs himself, which he did by listening to the demo for a few weeks before going back to wrap the album. The album turned out to be a bit short, but includes some of King’s most outstanding performances, such as the title track.

Musically, there is little that is particularly “Mississippi” about King, who seemed to draw mostly from the “uptown” west coast artists. He’s not at all like Muddy and Wolf, whose music was mostly plugged-in, updated country blues. King does do some of those back-country songs, but they are among his least-known tracks. They include “Dust My Broom,” and “Catfish Blues” (which Muddy called “Rollin’ Stone,” and King calls “Fishin’ After Me”), and “Bad Luck Soul,” a cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Bad Luck Blues.” King brings a fresh, new approach to all of these, and they’re very cool – - though, unfortunately, not known well.

B. B. King is certainly much more limited technically than the three great acknowledged influences on him, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, and T-Bone Walker. All three of them were stylistic innovators and gifted guitarists; all three could sing while playing something complicated on the guitar at the same time, and all three played lead riffs, chords, and chord-melody accompaniment. King really never mastered playing and singing simultaneously, and mostly punctuates his sung lines as well as whole song verses, with guitar riffs. He doesn’t use many chords either. Nor is he the dynamic guitar-in-back-of-the-head type of performer Walker was.

What he does have is a, well, regal presence on stage, a great communicative skill – - almost a glow – - and a knack for telling stories. He’s a fabulously passionate singer, and his sing-and-play alternation actually can be seen as an asset as much as a limitation. He also has a signature five-note riff that always evokes a response at his shows. King has managed as well to maintain a large number of fans both among blacks and whites, something that somehow has eluded most other blues players both black and white.

Certainly his hard work and attention to detail have paid off. Joe Louis Walker told me that he visited King at home and was amazed at all the books there. King, with little formal education, is very well-read and combines street-smarts with real book learning. The guy doesn’t waste time. He’s energetic, focused, and goal-oriented. He limits self-reflection and analysis of life. His hit song “Better Not Look Down” from 1979 (written by Will Jennings and Joe Sample for him) expresses that approach to life: “Better not look down, if you want to keep on flying. Put the hammer down, keep it full speed ahead.” The flying metaphor is right on, as King actually obtained a pilot’s license along the way to his many other achievements.

The fact that his music really isn’t typical “Mississippi Blues” has undoubtedly also worked to his advantage. The country blues, magic to some ears, doesn’t resonate with many listeners as much as its many musical offshoots. King has managed to keep his personal life mostly out of the news, as well as his political, social, religious views – - unlike may celebrities who lose some audience because of their behavior or their beliefs. His most well-known cause now is diabetes (he is diabetic), and he does commercials for products for diabetics.

The reason why anyone achieves large success in show biz is invariably a combination of talent, work, and circumstances. It has all come together for Riley B. King, to make him the King of the Blues, the name and face most associated with the genre, but someone who remains a well-known stranger as well.

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One of the masters of the blues – B.B. King – was born on September 16th, 1925, on a plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, near Indianola. Hitchhiking to Memphis in 1947, King connected with Sonny Boy Williamson II, another Mississippian, where King began to play B.B.’s first big break came in 1948 when he performed on Sonny Boy’s radio program on KWEM out of West Memphis. Prior to being on KWEM, Williamson (Rice Miller) and Robert Lockwood, Jr. did the now legendary King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA in Arkansas. The show reached an audience in the Mississippi Delta and influenced King as well as other Mississippi blues musicians including James Cotton, Ike Turner and others. It was on KWEM though where King came to initial prominence with his own segment on the station called “King’s Spot.” While B.B. King was influenced by his Mississippi roots, he was also inspired by Texas blues musicians including T-Bone Walker and Blind Lemon Jefferson. King’s now classic story of how he saved his acoustic guitar in a fire and then naming it “Lucille” is just one part of King’s incredible legacy. Below, watch a few videos of King through the years, including a full hour long concert performance he did with James Brown.

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